PJ Harris (left) of Totem Systems and Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy co-founded We Code, Too, a free coding bootcamp for African American and Latino youth. Harris is a member of Charlottesville Tomorrow's board of directors. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
A Charlottesville city councilor and a local entrepreneur are leading an educational organization with a long-term goal of increasing diversity in the area’s technology talent pipeline.
Councilor Wes Bellamy and P.J. Harris recently co-founded We Code, Too, a nonprofit that offers a free two-week coding academy for African-American and Latino students from fifth through 12th grade. The program welcomed its inaugural cohort of 22 students Monday.
“We are showing them that [computer science is] a field that is open to them, and letting the light bulb go off for them,” said Bellamy, who received his doctorate in education administration and supervision from Virginia State University last year.
Harris is chief operating officer of Totem Systems, a Charlottesville startup that develops software applications to support nonprofit development.
(Harris also is a member of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors).
Harris said We Code, Too will show students how coding relates to topics they are already interested in, such as sports and video games.
“Maybe they won’t play ball professionally, but there is a complete industry of computer science jobs in sports and entertainment,” Harris said.
“Instead of just playing Fortnite, they can make the next Fortnite,” Bellamy said, referring to the popular multiplayer combat video game with more than 40 million players worldwide.
The We Code, Too summer academy will introduce students to web design with HTML and teach computational thinking skills. The latest schedule for the program includes visits to the i.Lab at the University of Virginia and Metis Machine, a Charlottesville machine learning startup.
We Code, Too participants will receive a personal laptop after completing the summer academy. The organization will host workshops and hackathon challenges every other month during the school year.
Bellamy said students were accepted into the program this year on a first-come, first served basis. He said he hopes members of the first class of students will return as instructors for the 2019 academy.
HackCville, a nonprofit technology talent accelerator, is hosting the We Code, Too program at its clubhouses on Elliewood Avenue. UVa students on HackCville’s staff are serving as instructors for the summer academy.
While HackCville’s mission focuses on service to the UVa community, operations director Daniel Willson said the organization was excited to partner with We Code, Too to reach more local youth.
“It’s important that middle school students, high school students and other folks in Charlottesville can be introduced to those [coding] skills, too,” Willson said.
Willson said HackCville’s course instructors are accustomed to teaching students at varying levels of familiarity with coding.
“Pairing students that move really quickly, or have more background experience, with those who have less of a background actually tends to work well,” Willson said. “We tell students when they come in that it isn’t going to be a traditional classroom; 80 percent of your learning will be through hands-on projects that you’ll work on with other people.”
Alexis Mason, a teacher at Albemarle High School, registered her daughter for We Code, Too to encourage her interest in coding and technology design. Mason said she learned about the program when it was publicized through social media.
“[My daughter] is ready to dive deeper, learn more, and is excited to be able to work alongside more students of color, exploring tech together,” Mason said in an email. “It is imperative for our community to develop more opportunities to work with students of color and expose them to career skills … and create access to interact with professionals.”
A 2016 report commissioned by Google found that black and Hispanic students from seventh through 12th grade expressed more interest in computer science than did their white peers, but were less likely to attend a school with a dedicated computer science class. Black and Hispanic students also were more likely than white students to have learned computer science in an afterschool club or group.
Albemarle County and Charlottesville’s school divisions both offer computer science classes during and outside of school hours.
Albemarle County Public Schools offers a CoderDojo computer science academy for more than 700 students each summer. Ira Socol, chief technology and innovation officer for the county schools, said more than half of the students who participated this year were ethnic minorities.
Socol said the CoderDojo academy has become increasingly focused on serving Albemarle’s diverse urban ring elementary schools. Agnor-Hurt Elementary hosted the academy this year and allowed all students in its summer school program to participate.
“We have always reserved spots for kids who are in poverty or at-risk, and recommended by their principals,” Socol said.
Socol said the division’s Department of Learning Engineering, Access and Design subsidizes transportation to technology-focused afterschool programs and helps teachers to incorporate coding activities into core subject classes.
CoderDojo is great, and we really enjoy it, but until we get it into every class and every school, we are not going to be reaching minority and economically at-risk kids in the way we want to,” Socol said.
Bellamy said We Code, Too will seek to establish its academy program independently before considering partnerships with local schools.
More information can be found at wecodetoocville.com.

Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.